U.S. Navy Vice Adm. John Wade, the commander of Joint Task Force-Red Hill (JTF-RH), delivers remarks during a planning meeting at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, Nov. 28, 2023.

U.S. Navy Vice Adm. John Wade, the commander of Joint Task Force-Red Hill (JTF-RH), delivers remarks during a planning meeting at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, Nov. 28, 2023. (John Linzmeier/Department of Defense)

HONOLULU (Tribune News Service) — In a video released Wednesday, the military officer charged with defueling the Navy’s underground Red Hill fuel facility pledged that “every last drop will be removed.”

Joint Task Force Red Hill began removing the fuel in October after more than a year of making repairs and upgrades to the World War II-era facility and the pipelines that connect it to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. Since then just over 104 million gallons have been removed, which the military says is 99.9% of what is in the facility.

Last week JTF-RH announced it had successfully removed all “usable fuel“ from the facility. In the video update JTF-RH commander Vice Adm. John Wade said about 64,000 gallons of “residual fuel“ remain in the tanks along with an estimated 28,000 gallons of “sludge“ sediment at the bottom of each tank.

Up to this point the military has relied on “gravity defueling.” The facility was built inside a mountain to allow the tanks to use gravity to feed the pipelines connecting Red Hill to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-­Hickam, saving the energy that might otherwise be required to pump fuel through the pipes. But military officials say the remaining fuel can’t be removed by gravity alone and will require extra efforts to clean up.

The facility sits just 100 feet above a critical aquifer most of Honolulu relies on for drinking water. Though local officials and community leaders warned that poses a major threat to Oahu’s water supply, Navy officials insisted it was safe and that the facility was critical to national security. But in November 2021 fuel from the facility tainted the Navy’s Oahu water system that serves 93, 000 people.

After months of resisting a state emergency order to drain the tanks, in March 2022 the Pentagon agreed to permanently close the facility. It stood up JTF-RH in September 2022, which set to work making repairs on the tanks and pipelines — which had fallen into disrepair — to ensure no further spills during the defueling process.

JTF-RH was tasked with removing the fuel from the tanks — which is expected to be completed by the end of January — but long term closure of the facility and environmental remediation is expected to take much longer. The Navy is currently standing up a new task force for closure.

“Let me be clear, the Department of Defense will continue defueling the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility — every last drop will be removed as mandated in the state of Hawaii emergency order and the Environmental Protection Agency consent order,“ said Wade. “The Secretary of Defense has directed that Joint Task Force Red Hill will remove the majority of the residual fuel and the new Navy Closure Task Force that is currently being stood up or remove any remaining residual fuel and the sludge.”

Wade said that over the next month his team would “continue our close coordination with the new Navy closure task force and get ready for formal turnover from January to March. So they can learn our processes and procedures for safety, security and community engagement to ensure continuity of mission.”

Wade said that much of the task force will be taking off time for Christmas but that “all risk controls implemented for safety and security will remain in place 24/7.” (c)2023 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

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